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The Role of Water Governance in Pakistan’s Water Crisis

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The Role of Water Governance in Pakistan’s Water Crisis

The securitization of water governance in Pakistan does not actually help mitigate the water crisis in the country.

The Role of Water Governance in Pakistan’s Water Crisis

The Ravi River as it passes through Lahore, Pakistan.

Credit: Wikimedia Commos /Hafiz Mujahid Raza

In February, India stopped the flow of the Ravi River into Pakistan, claiming its exclusive right to use its water under the Indus Water Treaty (IWT). The treaty was signed in 1960 with the mediation of the World Bank, giving Pakistan rights to three western rivers – the Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab – while India was granted rights to use the three eastern rivers – the Ravi, Sutlej, and Beas. India’s construction of the Shahpur Kandi barrage and blocking of the Ravi River’s water will have ecological, economic, social, and cultural consequences for those downstream. 

The move has been labeled “water terrorism” by the Pakistani media. These events will likely intensify water securitization by the Pakistan military establishment, but that particular establishment may not effectively address the water crisis in the country

Pakistan is currently facing a severe water crisis due to scarce surface water resource availability, the depleting of groundwater, frequent climate shocks, and an exponentially increasing population. The country ranks 14th out of 17 extremely high water-risk nations. The country’s highly centralized and elite-serving water governance structures, controlled by the military, further contribute to Pakistan’s precarious water scarcity.

Water holds immense importance for the Pakistani military due to its strategic and economic imperatives. The country heavily relies on the transboundary Indus River system, which is shared with India, Pakistan’s regional rival. This dependence has led to water securitization in the country. Pakistan’s water is at the core of its domestic and regional security and strategic imperatives, leading to the securitization of water governance that has allowed certain circles within the military to gain monopolistic control over water resources and their development.

The military in Pakistan has significant control over both domestic and transboundary water policymaking, justified based on national security and interests. However, this monopoly also has group-based economic incentives, generating substantial profits for the military through water development projects, foreign aid, embezzlement, and domestic revenues. The military’s nationalistic and populistic stance on transboundary water serves the corporate and institutional interests of the group.

To secure such interests, the military employs civilian, religious, or technical institutions to produce and propagate certain public discourses and narratives on water in the country. By securitizing water governance, the military enhances its hegemonic control and enables itself to limit and challenge the role of the civilian government in water governance and negotiations with co-riparian states.

Pakistan’s dependency on transboundary rivers, especially the Indus Water System (IWS), has generated insecurity because India is seen as having strategic control over it. This perception has mobilized different groups to promote the securitization of water and link it with sovereignty and national importance in Pakistan. The recent halt of the Ravi River’s water flow will intensify these nationalistic narratives and further fuel the perceived insecurity about water. Consequently, water governance in Pakistan is becoming increasingly militaristic, nationalistic, and elite-centered. The new National Water Policy (NWP) designates water resources and governance as a national responsibility, limiting the policymaking authority of the civilian government.

In spite of the fact that the military’s control over public entities is inherently vulnerable to various forms of misconduct such as corruption, embezzlement of state funds, tax fraud, and even harsh coercive practices, the Pakistan military has managed to extend its dominance, and hegemonic control over water and hydropower resources. This includes exerting its influence over the government-owned public entity of the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA).

WAPDA was established in the 1950s to develop water and power infrastructure in Pakistan. Its primary responsibility was to develop hydropower projects, irrigation systems, water supply, and flood control infrastructure. However, in recent years, WAPDA has focused exclusively on the development of water resources and hydropower projects. Despite reconfiguring its mandate, WAPDA has struggled to deliver efficient services due to a prolonged history and persistent pattern of the Pakistan military’s involvement in controlling the organization, which has led to a lack of accountability and transparency, resulting in mismanagement and corruption.

Throughout its entire history, WAPDA has mostly been under the direct or indirect control of the military. Even during various civilian governments, the military has managed to retain de facto control of WAPDA by assigning retired high-ranking military officers to lead and manage the entity. This control over WAPDA serves to expand the military power base into the civilian and public spheres. However, this hierarchical and militaristic governance of the public entity comes with consequences in terms of inefficiency, due to widespread corruption and the misappropriation of funds.

The Auditor General of Pakistan (AGP) uncovered embezzlement, fraud, and misappropriation within the organization in 2013-2014 and 2017-2018. Moreover, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) accused the former chairman of WAPDA, a retired military general, of misappropriating $753 million in 2022. During his tenure, the organization initiated several large hydro projects, including the expansion of the Tarbela dam. Additionally, corruption scandals were reported regarding three other mega hydro projects, namely the Dasu, Diamer-Basha, and Mohmand dams, which are part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) flagship project with a total cost of $60 billion.

The control of public entities by the military, including WAPDA, is aimed at increasing the military’s control and power within the public and civilian spheres. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s unwavering reliance on the Indus River system represents a chronic existential threat in the country, as the growing political clout, economic prosperity, and expanding global influence of India may embolden it to assert control or hegemony over the river system. This realization has prompted the securitization of water governance under the country’s powerful military establishment.

But the securitization of water governance in Pakistan does not actually help mitigate the water crisis in the country. In addition to facing challenges such as supply-demand imbalances, climate shocks, and neighboring country’s hydro-politics, the real issue lies in the elite-serving water governance. Securitizing water governance and monopolizing it at the hands of the military is detrimental to the water security of the people of Pakistan.

Water insecurity has persistently intensified since the establishment of Pakistan in 1947. For all these long decades, the military has systematically tightened its grip over water governance and has exclusively focused on tackling the situation through infrastructure development projects. Building large dams and other water infrastructure projects have been prioritized over social and soft aspects of water governance. While both Pakistan and India have focused on infrastructure development rather than on the social and soft aspects of water governance, the difference is that India has greater financial and technical independence than Pakistan.

The latter faces challenges in terms of financial ability to invest in infrastructure development projects. To mitigate these limitations, foreign aid and loans play a significant role in construction-led development in Pakistan’s water sector. This has created a lucrative nexus between the military establishment and foreign entities. While each of these actors is securing their own institutional interests, the country’s dependency on foreign aid further increases, and it does little to mitigate the water crisis in Pakistan.

The construction of the Shahpur Kandi barrage by India and the blocking of the Ravi River’s water to Pakistan will increase the public feeling of water insecurity in the country. This situation will further intensify water securitization by the military, which will seek foreign aid and loans to implement water development projects. However, these initiatives, as the history of the country suggests, may only serve group-based interests and may not effectively address the severe water crisis in the country. The halt of the Ravi River’s water supply will undoubtedly have ecological, economic, and social consequences for Pakistan, and the securitization of water by the country’s military will further intensify water crisis in the country.